Better Britain

Better Britain: Permission and payment – a better internet

BY Dominic Young   /  6 June 2019

Britain is indisputably great when it comes to creativity. We are over-performers in the fields of music, writing, film production, games and more.

In an ideal world, the internet would, and should, be the medium the British creative industries could have used to go from being great to globally dominant. Media is one of the few sectors and products which the internet can actually deliver perfectly and seamlessly without the need for a van dropping off packages.

But the internet has not delivered. In fact, it has been a massive disappointment, undermining the creative industries as it has grown and expanded. Our task now is to turn that disappointment into a fresh opportunity. The prize will be creative industries that add even more to UK growth and productivity.


First, we need to rebuild two simple things. Permission and payment.

The internet operates without permissions, and that is pernicious. We have got used to the idea that our data, our content, our privacy are all mostly controlled by someone else. For a long time we had a vague sense that we might not be totally comfortable with that situation, but we accepted it as a necessary, perhaps even inevitable, by-product of the internet itself.

That might have been true in the early days. Perhaps giving permission and controlling our own data was a technical impossibility. How could any internet machine understand our permission or refusal?

We were fooled. The capability to build-in privacy, data protection, and copyright were always feasible, the more so every time Moore’s law (which observes a doubling in computing power every year) delivers another leap in capability. They were simply not considered, because the nascent internet giants had no incentive to do so.

The permission-free internet is fundamental to what companies like Google and Facebook do. If they had to have proper permission or obey your conditions before copying and storing your words and pictures, or before gathering data about you, their business models would collapse.

So they operate in a self-created and self-regulated environment where such permission is simply not needed or obtained via a mandatory “click-wrap” set of legalese unread and ignored by all their users.

More recently, the idea of restoring rights to users, the right to give, or withhold (or put conditions) on permission was rejected by lobbyists as a development which would “break the internet”. But lawmakers are now restoring them anyway, through initiatives like GDPR and updated copyright law. And guess what? The internet is still working.

Restoring these pre-internet laws and making them apply to the digital world as they have always done to the physical realm gives every single internet user back their human rights – control over their images, their work, and their private data.

But payment is just as important for the future as permission.

Imagine if less of the internet was free. Imagine paying for things that USED to be free online, even the media you consume. It might not seem the most attractive idea for you as a consumer, but think a little deeper. You probably pay for some stuff already – Spotify? Netflix? Perhaps even a newspaper?

The value proposition is pretty clear. You get a lot in return for your money. If you didn’t you would simply stop paying, or buy something else instead.

Being the customer, paying for things, however small each payment might be, makes you immensely powerful. Everyone wants your money, so they really try hard to earn it. You can give, you can take away. If the price is too high, you won’t pay. If the quality is too low, you won’t pay either.

Can you see the emerging quid pro quo?

The return of functioning permission and payment to the internet empowers you as an individual. You can decide who gets your photos, your information, and your creative output and on what terms. You can decide to be private. You can also decide who gets your money – and who doesn’t. The price of breaching your trust is the loss of your custom. The world of permission and payment puts you in control – and reduces the dominance of the big platforms over the whole internet.

Creating these capabilities also empowers and rewards creators and the media companies which surround them. Anyone with a great media product can take advantage of the internet’s ability to reach audiences.

In this brave new world, creativity and great ideas, not ownership of internet pipes and platforms, become the principal driver success in all kinds of media. And paradoxically this is also good news for the big platforms which will now need to adapt to all this change. All these creators seeking audiences to drive their profits are going to invest some of their money – and content – in marketing. That is where Google and Facebook really make their money.

For me, having worked in the news industry during the whole web era, this vision is compelling and exciting. It’s not just a way to stop the rot that is destroying the news business and peoples’ trust in it, but a way to define a new era for the internet which corrects many of the dysfunctions which define it today. Without having to go to war with Silicon Valley, we can create a more functional internet which is focused on, and rewarded by, its users.

The greatest sin I have seen committed by the news industry in the web era is inaction. Too often they have clearly understood and articulated problems or threats from the internet, but failed to act decisively to build and back the solution to that problem. Instead they have waited for someone else to act – usually either big platforms or governments. But this has not delivered them from the parlous state they now find themselves in.

Which is why, having understood the opportunity to seize the moment and change things, I have created a company to make a bit part of it possible. We solve the payment problem for any publisher in the simplest possible way, by making it easy for them to charge whatever price is right, and by making the price of reading an article just the cost of that article, not an ongoing subscription. Our solution is portable between publishers and works on any participating site.

For readers and publishers alike, it takes away all the barriers to paying for the media. Well, nearly all. The publisher still has to produce a product that readers love, and feel happy to pay for. To do that they need to invest in it and make sure nobody goes away disappointed.

Our contribution to improving the future is to create the tool which solves one of the internet’s central dysfunctions. It’s called Agate and if you’re reading Reaction you can try it right here if you haven’t already. Just glick the green tab in the top left of the screen and get started. An article will only cost you 30p and unlimited access for the week kicks in when you have spent £1.20.

With initiatives like this we will create a better, richer, more diverse, more honest, more trustworthy internet for all of us. Especially for Britain, a creative champion.

We have the creators and innovators who are already building this new world, and in Britain we are best placed to lead it.

Dominic Young is the CEO and founder of Agate. You can pay per article for Reaction using Agate.


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